Joe Dirt
review by Gregory Avery, 13 April 2001

In Joe Dirt, David Spade plays the titular character, a scrappy little guy who's never had much in life but who makes the best of what he has. Joe has an unusual hairstyle that looks like it was done that way on-purpose but is actually the result of a childhood mishap. Things did not go well for Joe after that: abandoned by his family, he goes through the route of foster homes and juvenile facilities before hitting the road, as an adult, to find out what happened to his family -- his real last name isn't "Dirt", but something else entirely -- and who they really are.

Joe's quest leads him to encounters with a number of people, including Brandy (Brittany Daniel), the personification of the lyric from the Looking Glass song, "Brandy, you're a fine girl...." They become true friends, but when later asked if they became anything more than that, Joe almost jumps out of his skin. "No!" he exclaims. "She's beautiful!"

Joe likes cars, and he's very particular about what kind of music he listens to: AC/DC, Lynard Skynard, Def Leppard, and "Van Halen, not 'Van Hagar'". The movie may use this as proof that Joe is nothing more than a hick and a nincompoop, but that's not the way David Spade plays him. However he may appear on the outside, Joe is essentially good-spirited and well-meaning, and when somebody really lays into him, his chin drops and he seems at a loss for a comeback, and well knows it. In these instances, Spade gives Joe genuine emotion, while also depicting him with a resiliency and upbeat tenacity that is not only admirable but even ends up lending Joe a certain amount of dignity and respect.

Joe needs that, because the movie itself is content to keep throwing gravel in his face and then standing back to laugh -- at one point, the movie, literally, craps on Joe's head. The story is framed by his landing in the broadcasting booth of a snide Los Angeles radio personality, played by Dennis Miller, who gets Joe to talking because he thinks he's a joke. Miller's stubbly face elasticizes into a broad smile as he leans close to say, "You are exquisitely pathetic!", and then pauses to savor the effect. All of L.A. is shown stopping to listen to Joe's story, first to scoff and sneer, then to turn all sympathetic and to weep. The movie wants us to react in the same manipulative way, too, to chortle mockingly as Joe is put into one situation after another where he is made to look foolish and ridiculous, then to feel genuine caring towards Joe's quixotic attempt to find his family, depending on whichever way the movie cares to go at the time. Joe does eventually find a family -- two, in fact -- but even this happy resolution does not escape from having a certain acid tinge to it that's disagreeable. (The fact that Joe needs, or ought to, be taken seriously as a person may have been the point all along -- Spade co-wrote the screenplay, and it's a quality that comes through in his performance without his having to hard-sell it -- but, somewhere along the way, the wires got crossed.)

Spade satirizes (without drubbing) Joe in a sequence that parodies Zalman King's Two Moon Junction (with Joe as the carnival roustabout), and the film also includes parodies the Jame Gumb sequences in The Silence of the Lambs (with Brian Thompson, the alien bounty hunter from The X Files!) and the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. There are also some oddball cameos, some uncredited and some endearing, by Joe Don Baker (his character loses a limb, but hobbles back to blame it all on Joe), Kevin Nealon (as a junkyard mechanic who seems to have been around so much oil, grease and gasoline for so long, his teeth have become discolored from the inside out), Rosanna Arquette (as the proprietor of a gator farm), Catherine O'Hara (fleetingly, as a T.V. journalist), and, wonderfully, Christopher Walken, who tutors Joe in the finer aspects of being a school janitor, and tap dances (with that great flare for dancing that Walken shows all too infrequently) while sweeping the halls and having a conversation with a fire extinguisher.

Joe Dirt -- which was originally called The Adventures of Joe Dirt but, for whatever reason, was retitled, with a re-dub on the soundtrack that refers to the protagonist's story as The Legend of Dirty Joey -- will be dismissed by most (and not without cause) as being merely mean-spirited and crude. My reaction was that I hope David Spade isn't going to fritter away his talents on lousy films which don't deserve them, the way John Candy did: for every Splash or Uncle Buck or J.F.K., there were two or three real stinkers in between. Candy chose his career trajectory; David Spade still has the chance to decide which way his will go.

Directed by:
Dennie Gordon

Starring:
David Spade
Brittany Daniel
Kid Rock
Adam Beach
Dennis Miller
Christopher Walken

Written by:
David Spade 
Fred Wolf

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13

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